Ashley S. Palmer is 31 and lives with his wife in Thanet, Kent. With a waxed moustache and lustrous beard, he looks indistinguishable from a hundred other "Shoreditch got too real so I moved to the Home Counties" types.
And that's basically who he is, except that when he's not designing T-shirts for his likeminded pals. Palmer is a Reverend of the Church of Satan – a mystifying sort-of religion, founded in 1966 by a sorcerer-looking man called Anton LaVey.
Ahead of the popping of champagne corks for the church's landmark birthday, I hopped on Skype with the Reverend to discuss whether he can really call himself that and if the Church of Satan is more than just some teenage angst taken way too far.
VICE: Hey Reverend, and many happy returns to the church. So Satanism – is that actually a religion?
Reverend Ashley S. Palmer: Well, Satanism is a philosophy, and also a religion. I grew up an atheist – I wasn't baptised into any religion – and when I first encountered the Church of Satan, at maybe 10 years old, it was via groups that our church would probably see as detractors. Metal bands, or people that use pentagram imagery or horror film style Satanism, we actually call devil worship. I liked all of that imagery, but when I heard certain death metal bands were claiming they could conjure up a literal devil, I was like, 'Oh dear, this is where we part ways.' I liked the music, I liked the imagery, but I realised there were some real fucking kooks out there.
When did you move from "devil worship" to actual Satanism?
Maybe 13. I was pleased to find out Satanism was also an atheist philosophy. The way Satanism functions is that our belief system starts with a lack of belief, with an adherence to scientific skepticism, much in the same vain as Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan or Sam Harris. At the top level it's atheism, then if you drill down further we also find dark imagery and that kind of symbolism appealing.
You're not just a gang of lairy teenagers, then?
If you actually look at most of our members, we're generally not teenage kids – we're mature folks. I'm 31, but I'm on the younger end of the spectrum. I interact with people far more mature, and it's a bit lame to tar us with the rebellion brush, when some of these guys have been doing it for 50 years.
Well, it's just that the phrase "satanic ritual" conjures images of human sacrifice, pentagrams, pigs' blood and men with their privates out. What's the reality?
I would say it's a very broad concept. Some of the things you just said might be part of it. Basically, anything that is legal in the country where the ritual's being practised is up for grabs. But in terms of the usual conflation with death, sacrifice and things of that nature – that's pure Christian propaganda. It has never been part of any form of Satanism.
You don't pray to Lucifer, then?
No, no. That kind of Satan – an anthropomorphic deity, something with horns or anything that cannot be proved by science like Thor, Zeus, Jesus – we either reject or are very sceptical about. We'd need some damn hard evidence before believing any of it.
You mention Jesus. What he would have to say about all this?
Ha. I actually don't know enough about that character to even comment.
OK. But if Christians have the Bible and Muslims the Quran, is there a handbook for budding Satanists?
Yes. It's named as you would expect: The Satanic Bible. It was penned by [Church of Satan founder] Anton LaVey and is the key text, the founding document that clarifies all of the fundamental basics of Satanism and goes into some of the tenets. You've got satanic statements of intent and what Satan represents, so straight away you're introduced to the idea that Satan is merely a symbol. You'll have phrases such as "indulgence instead of abstinence", but not being a cult member I don't walk around with these things committed to memory.
Is a satanic life a sociable one? Is there a Church of Satan Christmas party?
Not that I know about. There could be a meeting of Satanists that happens at Christmas time, but they'd probably call it a "Saturnalia infernal festivity" or something.
You're not one for Christmas presents or Easter eggs, then?
Actually what's great is that us Satanists think gift giving and overindulgence is great. So we celebrate all of it, just with the Christianity element expunged.
Is Satanism really a celebration of evil? The satanic 'rules' mainly seem to focus on not being a dickhead.
Yeah, they're common sense based ways of navigating the world, really. We're interested in preserving western civilisation, that's why we see the rise of theism dangerous. I know Christianity has been largely westernised now, but it's still a cult from a foreign land trying to impose its values and tear down our civilised society. We don't aim to convert anyone, we're more interested in people pursuing their own choice of religion or philosophical inclinations. It's about preserving people's rights to live as they want, as long as they're not harming anyone else. That's, if you like, our silver rule.
That just sounds like classical liberalism though. Isn't there a dark side to Satanism – anything society would see as, y'know, evil?
The general public would certainly raise an eyebrow at what we call greater magic, which is the name for our ritual practices. Peter Gilmore, the current High Priest, calls it a "self-transformational psychodrama". Typically for a Satanic ritual would be to enter a space that's usually very darkly decorated, called a ritual chamber. It's not required of Satanists – I don't actually have one – but many have a dedicated room they'll use on a needs basis.
And what goes down in there?
There's certain procedures – particular words are read from a book, or they can be printed on to parchment for more aesthetic value – and to the outsider this would look like devil worship. It's because in the ritual chamber Satan is referred to, temporarily given a persona, if you like. If people haven't read the necessary material, all they see is a Satanist asking Satan for something. But it's all wrapped inside this ritual chamber environment, it's not meant to do anything other than change your mental state.
So where does the evil come in?
It's just the context, really. There is nothing evil going on.
But it depends on your definition. You could say evil is anything you don't like. Say you were wronged grievously, and the perpetrator didn't get the punishment they deserved through the legal system, you might enter a ritual chamber and declare the death of that person, and really mean it. Then, if you then found out they did die after you performed this ritual, you would feel no remorse whatsoever. That is evil to a lot of people. We'd see it as justice.
Well that actually sounds very evil. What do people think when you tell them about your "faith"?
Because I'm self-employed I don't tend to interact with many people that don't know what I'm interested in, but back when I was employed in a generic office I didn't bring it up to anyone – I kept it private. They just thought I was one of those rabid atheists.
Why the secrecy? Are you ashamed of your beliefs?
I think it would be a terrible conversation starter for most situations. You're setting yourself up for an evening of explaining yourself, basically. We're not into proselytising, so you'll never catch a Satanist going round a dinner party saying, 'Have you heard the good news?' or rather, 'The bad news?' We're not knocking on any doors or hanging out at shopping centres with leaflets.
There's a Church of Satan approved movie list, which includes Blade Runner, Bedazzled and, oddly, The Snowman. It's tongue in cheek, yeah?
It's very serious, actually. Particularly The Snowman. Peter Gilmore is very au fait with film, and the reason he picked The Snowman is very simple. The moral of the story is about death, and coming to terms with the fact that you can be a child, have a fantastic experience, but like all good parties and life, ultimately, it comes to an end and there's nothing after. So when the heartbroken child realises the snow has melted and there's just the hat and scarf where his friend was, that's a good way of children learning about mortality. And from a Satanic perspective, that's how we view existence. It's very brief, there'll be good times, but it's going to end.
How is the Church of Satan's 50th birthday being celebrated?
There's a specific event. It's members only and taking place in the eastern part of the United States. I'm not allowed to give away specific locations, but I can tell you I'm not going to this one. I'm actually expecting my first child soon, so that's the main reason – my wife is heavily pregnant.
Oh wow – congrats. Is your wife a Satanist too?
She is. It's quite a rare occurrence, but there are a few pockets of Satanist couples, and we actually decided to join the Church of Satan together. It was something we discussed, researched together and, when the time was right, we threw in our lot with the Church of Satan.
I take it the wedding wasn't a Christian affair?
Ha, that's correct. We got married in a secular castle, where religious ceremonies are prohibited, which suited us. Within the secular marriage ceremony that the government lets you have, there's a lot of leeway in terms of the wording you can use. So at the parts where we could choose the language, the person overseeing the wedding, without knowing it, was reading out bits of the Satanic Scriptures.
Plenty of black at the reception, was there?
Yeah, we're that kind of Satanist couple.
How'd you define your own style?
I also like the current resurgence of, well it's a terrible term, but you know what most people would consider a hipster? I've pretty much looked like that for years – waxed moustache, long beard, I wear braces occasionally. So I kind of like the English gentleman revival, and tweed waistcoats are something I've dabbled with in the past. But, being a Satanist, my inclination when something reaches the masses is to go the other way.
Will your child be a Satanist?
I think that would be a very bad idea. Not because I'm ashamed of being a Satanist, just that any form of childhood indoctrination sounds like a terrible idea to me.
OK, good. Honestly though, Ashley, all this Satanist malarky, are you sure you're not doing it to be cool?
Hmmm. For me personally, no. Being cool doesn't come into it. From my vantage point, you'd get more cool points if you weren't a Satanist – fashions change and, as a Satanist, you have to do a lot of explaining and debunking and clearing the way before you even get anywhere. If you wanted to be cool, I guess today you'd brag about giving a lot of money to charity, sport the right fragrance and wear the right consumer clothing. That would be a quicker or easier route to be cool than identifying with a philosophy that virtually no one knows anything about.
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